The Race to Ban What's Bad For Us

Trans fat, smoking, foie gras--what's next?


Is there any doubt that the infantilization of adults is one of the defining characteristics of contemporary politics?

Last week alone, New York City banned the use of trans fats in restaurant meals, and an Ohio law passed in November that bans smoking in virtually all business establishments (even in company-owned vehicles such as trailer-truck cabs) went into effect. However different the actions may seem on the surface, they share something all too common in today's America: They rob us of the right to make decisions–however stupid, unwise or repugnant to refined sensibilities–about how we want to live, work and eat.

Although "give me partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or give me death!" is not likely to become a rallying cry anytime soon, it's worth pausing a minute to consider the country's headlong rush to prohibit just about anything that bureaucrats–or simple majorities of voters–find offensive.

New York used to pride itself on being the toughest city in the world. After passing the first municipal ban on trans fat in the United States, it has just become one of the most annoying.

Trans fats, which are made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oils, are the flavor-enhancing substances that make many commercially prepared baked goods and fast foods so predictably yummy–and, alas, so predictably artery clogging. They are reviled by physicians, nutritionists and exercise gurus–everyone, in short, except for cooks and their customers.

So now New York City restaurants face a fine of at least $200 per infraction come next July. For good measure, the Board of Health also dictated that restaurants already posting nutritional information must post calorie counts for their meals.

"We are just trying to make food safer," said Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who in 2002 pushed through one of the toughest smoking bans in the country.

It's not as tough, though, as the statewide ban that 58 percent of Ohio voters approved and that now is in effect.

When Buckeye State residents gather in bars, restaurants, private clubs and even bowling alleys on Jan. 8 to watch Ohio State University take on the University of Florida for a national football championship, they'll have to do it without lighting up.

When Ohio–a bellwether state that once billed itself as "The Heart of It All" on its license plates–mimics policies found in New York and California (which passed the first statewide smoking ban in 1995), it's a given that no unwise, unhealthy or just unseemly choice is safe from regulation.

Indeed, how else to explain, say, Chicago's decision in April to ban the sale of foie gras out of concern for the geese who give their lives–and their livers–for diners' pleasure? Observers say it's likely that Illinois and Minnesota will be the 19th and 20th states to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, even as cities in California and elsewhere mull the idea of banning all smoking outside of private, single-family dwellings.

Similarly, New York's trans fat ban will almost certainly be emulated. As Ald. Ed Burke (14th), who sponsored a similar measure earlier this year, told The New York Times, "I'm disappointed we're losing bragging rights to be the first city in the nation to do this." With attitudes such as that, expect to see the equivalent of an arms race among jurisdictions bidding up restrictions on all sorts of activities deemed unacceptable.

Such bans often are, by turns, mendacious, redundant and likely to be ineffective. The trans fat ban, averred Bloomberg, is "not going to take away anybody's ability to go out and have the kind of food they want," even as it limits what ingredients can be used.

Fast food chains such as Wendy's and KFC had already committed to ridding their menus of trans fats, as had various high-end eateries in New York and elsewhere. And in a country in which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 65 percent of adults are overweight, it's ridiculous to expect the ban to have any serious impact on the supersizing of American waistlines or cholesterol levels.

It's probable that smoking bans in the workplace encourage employees to quit or cut back. The CDC, for instance, notes that "a 2002 review of 26 studies concluded that a complete smoking ban in the workplace reduces smoking prevalence among employees by 3.8 percent and daily cigarette consumption by 3.1 cigarettes among employees who continue to smoke." And there's no doubt that not smoking clears the air.

But even when bans do have an impact that most of us would agree is positive, one-size-fits-all actions leave no place for individuals to make some intensely personal choices.

They ignore the evolving social arrangements–such as non-smoking sections, not to mention smoke-free businesses–that give people, especially the 20 percent of adults who still light up regularly, more options rather than fewer. By the time Washington state passed its ultra-restrictive smoking ban last year–a law that outlaws lighting up even in cigar bars!–80 percent of restaurants there were already tobacco free.

Most important, these bans reduce all of us to the status of children, incapable of making informed choices. Is it quaint to suggest that there's something wrong with that in a country founded on the idea of the individual's rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of Reason. This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune.